Catholic shortstop Josh Smith, second baseman Bo Branch give Bears strong defense up the middle _lowres

Catholic shortstop Josh Smith, left, and second baseman Bo Branch have provided the Bears with strong defnese up the middle.

Whether or not second-seeded Catholic can claim its second Class 5A baseball title in the past three seasons is a point for debate.

As Friday’s semifinal with No. 14 Brother Martin (26-12) looms, there’s no debate about which cliché fits the Bears (36-3) the best.

“Defense wins championships” is one of the oldest catch phrases in the book. But that’s the book on the Bears — sound defensively, especially with shortstop Josh Smith and second baseman Bo Branch patrolling the middle of the field.

“Both Josh and Bo are shortstops, and they have such great chemistry together,” Catholic coach Brad Bass said. “There have been times when Bo has ranged to right or his left to make incredible plays. Josh has great range and makes those kind of plays too.

“They’re game changers, no doubt about it.”

Catholic meets Brother Martin in a Class 5A semifinal set for 4 p.m. Friday at the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA State Baseball tournament set for McMurry Park in Sulphur.

“We’ve always had chemistry and gotten along since he (Smith) came here as a freshman,” Branch recalled. “We were both trying to get the shortstop job, and he got it. But we’d take ground balls together and work together. That’s why I was excited about getting the chance to play second. We’ve always practiced turning double plays in practice.”

When Smith, an LSU commitment, won the job two years ago he became only the second freshman to be the Bears’ starter at shortstop. Smith’s idol, Austin Nola, was the first to do it. Nola went on to star at LSU and is now playing Marlins’ minor league system.

“We take pride in it,” Smith said of the Bears defense. “We try to be perfect, especially up the middle. Defense does win championships. You can have the best offense in the world, but if you can’t play defense, chances are you won’t win. That’s just baseball.”

Neither player is a slouch at the plate. Smith helps lead the Bears with a .448 batting average that includes 14 doubles, four home runs and 38 RBIs. Branch has a .315 average and a .490 on-base percentage.

However, it’s the defensive statistics that are eye-popping. Branch didn’t commit an error in District 5-5A play and enters the state tourney with a .985 field average. That’s quite an accomplishment for a guy who earned all-district honors in 2014 as an outfielder. Smith has a .961 fielding average.

“He (Smith) has such good range,” Branch said. “He’s gotten stronger, and his range has gotten better every year. Anytime you can make the plays he does, it takes the pressure off the pitcher.”

When Smith and Branch say they’ve known each other for so long they’re not kidding. The duo tried out for the same travel team, the Baton Rouge Astros, when they were 10-year-olds.

Branch says the biggest compliment he can give Smith is that he makes even tough plays look easy. The way the duo complements each other is something to note as the Bears face Brother Martin.

“Brother Martin is playing real well,” Smith said. “I played with one of their pitchers, Blair Frederick, last fall. You can never take a team like that for granted.”

When asked what the key to success against the Crusaders will be, Smith offers up the obvious answer.

“We’ve got to make plays,” Smith said.